A Student Reflects on How We Teach Essays

A few months back, I got a message from a high school student named Ellie asking if I could publish a piece she wrote. I don’t publish many guest essays, but after reading it, I felt that this was a piece I should share, largely because (beyond being well-written and thoughtful) it contains a perspective rarely seen in discussions of education: the student perspective.

As teachers we may occasionally or even regularly ask students how a lesson, unit, or class went, but even when we are committed to hearing the students’ perspectives, the realities of the classroom mean that our surveys often have to be faster and more surface-level than we’d like. Further, even if anonymous, student responses to a lesson, class, or teacher tend to be heavily skewed by the relationship/dynamic they have with that class or teacher.

To get a truly deep and relatively objective look into how our teaching practices impact students is rare, and it is part of why I am handing the microphone today to Ellie. The other reason is that Ellie makes some novel and interesting points about form-first teaching, thesis statements, and creativity–points that I haven’t seen made anywhere else. I walked away from her essay holding an internal debate with both her and myself, which to me is a surefire sign that what I just read was worthwhile.

So without further preamble, here is a student perspective on the essay and how it is commonly taught. I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime I hope you get as much from it as I did! Thanks as always for reading!

A Student Reflects on How We Teach Essays

Nine times out of ten, when asked if I like writing, I’ll reply that I love it. Yet I constantly find myself griping and groaning to my mother about some English assignment I don’t want to do. Not the vibrant few assignments dubbed “creative writing”— I mean the other ones, which always end up being some sort of essay. I hate writing essays. To me, they’re flat-out boring, and utterly unimaginative.

But when my class started reading a collection of essays by authors from all different perspectives, I made a shocking discovery: essays don’t have to be this way. I actually found myself liking the genre. A month earlier, I’d have scoffed at the idea—I can’t recall reading an essay that I’d enjoyed before. (Pretended to like, sure, but it wasn’t ever genuine.) Now, here I was, flabbergasted at these incredible essays, determined to find out how these authors had written essays that were actually interesting, meaningfully structured, and bursting at the seams with creative spirit.

The first, most obvious feature of the essays was that not a single one followed the hateful five-paragraph formula that was so prevalent in my school writing life. The essays weren’t unstructured, but their structure came from an inner drive. They were content-driven, not formula-driven. It made them so much better.

And then I realized the reason my own essays were so boring. They are excessively structured, it’s true, but the structure comes from one single line towards the end of the first paragraph that sets in stone exactly how the essay will be written. It decides the content of each paragraph and the overall point of the essay right from the get-go. After that sentence is written, you’re just filling in the blanks. I’m referring, as you might have guessed, to the Thesis Statement.

This focal sentence generally tries to hit three bases: who-what-how, with emphasis on what the essay’s major point is. I don’t think your claim should be about what. Yes, it’s important to express what it is you’re talking about, but that’s not the point of the essay; the point of the essay is to tell you WHY you came to your conclusion, and convince the audience of your ideas. And it just doesn’t make sense to have the why at the top of your paper before you’ve proved everything. (It’s called coming to a conclusion.) Starting your paper with why doesn’t lead the reader through your thought process. Frankly, the thesis statement doesn’t follow any thought process—it states the big, grand concepts and leaves it at that.

After you describe your essay’s what, you always have to state three ways how—in essence, your three big reasons. Every time I write this part of a thesis statement, I feel like a butcher, mutilating my ideas down to the barest form they can still be recognized in. Sure, you get the gist, but it’s incoherent and plopped down way before it makes sense to argue each point. It’s stealing the paragraph’s thunder, but the thunder’s so weak it sounds more like a stomach grumble. And at the end of the thesis, none of my hunger’s been satisfied.

What good, in the end, do thesis statements do? It seems to me all they do is turn the rest of the essay into a math problem: 3 paragraphs x (1 topic sentence + 2 pieces of evidence + 2 analysis sentences) = essay body. Tack a conclusion on at the end, and you’re good to go: one mass-produced essay, coming right up. Same old, same old. Not exciting. Not interesting. And it doesn’t teach us to think for ourselves when we’re writing.

Whenever I bring this topic up with my teachers, I tend to get the same response: maybe I, as an eleventh grader in AP English, am an experienced enough writer to move beyond the structure of a thesis—but their ninth grade students might not be. Eighth, seventh, sixth grade students might not be. I see their point—lack of structure can be intimidating to younger students (and some older ones as well). But even as it’s said, something about this argument feels wrong to me, something that I can never quite place. It’s a subtle thing. But it’s immensely impactful.

Writing—and to a larger extent, learning—is all about mindset. If you think you’re going to fail, you’ve got little chance of succeeding. If your English teacher thinks you’re going to fail, then buddy, you’ve got no chance at all. Students who are intimidated by lack of structure are so because their teacher, and teachers before them, don’t have faith in their students’ ability to write when the prompt is loosely structured. Students have been forced to become reliant on structure, and when suddenly that structure is taken away, they panic because they were “never taught this before.” They’re terrified of failure, so they’ll try to stay within the safe lines that have already been set up for them: the structure of the thesis. Take away that fear, and those safe lines will start to feel like constraints. Students will begin to explore beyond.

There are two types of writing I encounter in an English class. Essays. And creative writing. Yet I’ve just written an essay—fully ignoring the five-paragraph structure—which I would call creative. The essays I read in class that started me on this shpiel—I’d call them creative. Get rid of the formula, and the words can pull you down limitless paths. Get rid of that fear of failure, and suddenly a world of writing is waiting at your fingertips.

To all the English teachers out there: consider why you tell your students to use thesis statements. Consider why you want their writing to stay within rigid structures. Consider why student essays are so often unimaginative. And above all, remember: any writing can become creative.

You just have to let it.  

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

6 responses to “A Student Reflects on How We Teach Essays”

  1. I came to the classroom in 1994 believing in student voice and choice as writers AND readers. I believe in Writer’s and Readers’ Workshop. To keep my job, I was forced to do many things that are not good practice–like this student’s example–because of “educational reforms” led by tech giants, not educators. Many of us would do exactly as this student asks–if ONLY leaders believed TEACHERS about what’s appropriate practice in the subjects in which we’ve earned degrees. The frustration at NOT being able to do what we know is good practice is high, but since legislatures have outlawed Academic Freedom in many states, few teachers have the choice to do the right thing. This issue played a big role in my decision to leave the high school classroom this year, even though I LOVE teaching. Law & policy about standardization, high stakes testing, and teacher evaluations conspire to create a hatred of reading and writing for far too many students. It’s tragic.


  2. […] the power of giving students choice to pursue their own interests in essays, we’ve looked at a student perspective on the essay, and I’ve argued that the essay shouldn’t be the only genre of writing we […]


  3. Out of curiosity, what were the collection of essays that the students were reading that sparked this essay?


    1. Hi, Sorry for the long lag time; I just had my second child a few weeks ago, so I’ve been largely unplugged. The student essay wasn’t from my student, so I don’t know the essays they read, but that is a great question. I will absolutely follow up on that! Here is a link to a blog where I talk a little about the kinds of essays I will show when I want to teach students about the wide range of forms essays can take: https://matthewmjohnson.com/2018/09/27/writing-essays-should-be-fun/


  4. I really appreciated reading this as I study to become an English teacher myself. A lot of what Ellie says falls in line with my own feelings towards essays and I really admired her argument and creative essay. I will definitely be saving this one for later and sharing it with classmates and friends! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing, and let me know if I can help out with your preparation in any way! We teachers are all in this together, so it is no bother to share anything that will help your journey!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: